Trans representation and casting. Where are we at?

Jay Stewart, CEO of Gendered Intelligence

As a trans-led organisation, Gendered Intelligence wants to see more roles for trans actors as well as trans people represented in all aspects of the creative process of theatre and performance making (trans writers, trans directors, trans stage managers etc.) Trans people, including young trans people, need to see themselves positively represented on stage and elsewhere.

Trans people face significant barriers in their careers in the creative industries. These are often due to barriers of opportunity to learn and gain skills, as well as experiencing prejudice in the industry itself. In addition, trans people can experience internalised transphobia (the learnt shame of being trans) and consequently have feelings of low self-worth and confidence. We need to work together to remove these barriers in order that all trans and gender diverse people thrive and fulfil their potential.

Gendered Intelligence wants to be part of the change that needs to happen.

At Gendered Intelligence we deliver training and consultancy with organisations to support them in their understandings and in working towards their delivery of trans inclusive services. These services include working with theatres and drama schools. We want all trans people to feel welcomed and supported, whether they are employees, customers or students.

Some will know that Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival co-produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and in association with the Donmar Warehouse are working in collaboration on a musical theatre production of Breakfast On Pluto. The production is based on a book written in 1998 and is about a young Irish trans person in the 1970s.

On Monday 9th March they released a press release about the production, which included information that they had cast a cis actor to a trans role. 

Gendered Intelligence was not involved in the casting process of Breakfast on Pluto and suffice to say Gendered Intelligence does not endorse the casting of a cis actor to a trans role.

We did arrange to deliver consultancy and training for staff at the Donmar Warehouse who reached out to us in order to work with the team to ensure trans inclusive practices will be carried out in the run up to the production. Indeed, we have carried this out with a number of other theatres over the years.

In addition to GI delivering this work, there was discussion around recognising the difficulty and complexity of the task in casting for trans characters. The identity of the character Pussy Braden is both trans and Irish. We also discussed the skillset required in the mix with it being a musical.

Having already cast for the production, our discussions moved to considering those wider, ongoing aims mentioned earlier – to nurture trans talent in the theatre industry. So, a question we posed was:

What could the Donmar, their partners on ‘Breakfast on Pluto’ and the industry more generally, do in order to invest in trans actors and to ensure that things change for the better, so that we won’t see the casting of trans roles going to cis actors?

One idea we had was for the Donmar to donate space for a trans led show, that Gendered Intelligence is involved with. The show is written by trans artist, with a group of young trans people. The show will be directed by a trans person and performed by an all trans cast. The show will involve a short tour across different parts of the country, but this gave us an opportunity to showcase trans talent and tell trans stories at a large theatre space in London where we could offer low and no-cost tickets for a predominantly trans audience alongside our allies.

Another idea was to arrange a showcase later in the autumn period to, once again, showcase trans talent and create discussion and debate about the experiences, representation and politics of trans people in the industry.

Other actions taken by the production have been the employment of two people, who have shared their trans status, in the job roles of production consultant and Assistant Director, as well as a trans academic to curate a ‘wrap around programme’ in Galway and Dublin.

My view is that these actions were taken in good faith to further contribute to the ultimate aim of increasing opportunities for trans people in the theatre industry. I am not of the opinion that these efforts are cynical acts on the part of the Donmar, and their partners, as a way to legitimise decisions around the casting of a cis actor to a trans role.

Some people may feel that the casting decision far outweighs any other positive endeavour. It sends the wrong message and ultimately is highly inappropriate, especially given our current climate of increasing toxicity in the media. Some believe that there are talented trans people out there and more efforts needs to be made to cast them into these important high-profile roles. Others have highlighted how damaging it is to have cis performers playing trans roles. Whilst others still feel that it should be trans people telling trans stories. In short, a line needs to be drawn: no more cis actors for trans parts.

I want to say that I applaud these sentiments.

In 2015, GI began its Trans Acting project – a project that engages with trans and non-binary people’s place within the creative and cultural sector. Over the years we have engaged with over 200 people who have participated in a range of masterclasses, panel discussions and workshops. The Trans Acting project began as a collaboration with the My Genderation duo (Fox Fisher and Lewis Hancock) and Dr Catherine McNamara now Head of School (Art, Design & Performance), at University of Portsmouth. At Trans Acting we want to develop and deliver high quality trans-inclusive performer training with trans and non-binary participants, nurture the creativity and talent of trans and non-binary participants, give producers, directors and others involved in making TV, film, radio, theatre and other media access to that talent and share a model of practice that might be used by other practitioners and professionals.

Over the years, we’ve worked with a range of organisations including the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Royal Court Theatre, Scottish Queer International Film Festival and BFI Flare. Partners in delivering the project include Outbox, an LGBT Theatre Company with a remit of making performance and doing outreach with young LGBT people.

Trans Acting, among others, are the initiatives needed to nurture talent and profile it in the West End and elsewhere.

Thinking back to 2015, I am reminded of an article I did about The Danish Girl – a Hollywood movie about trans woman Lily Elbe (played by Eddie Redmayne). I wrote:

Representing trans lives in films or elsewhere is a nightmare task for anyone and I applaud anyone who gives it a shot. But this film [The Danish Girl] made by cis (non-trans) people and performed by mostly cis people… will be mostly watched by cis people.

Claudia Rankine…  argued in The Guardian that “Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people” and I… want to make this parallel.

These films are not for ‘us’ trans people and yet ‘we’ view them nonetheless. What kind of politics emerges specifically from a trans perspective? We are living in very interesting political times right now when it comes to trans equality. We need to make films like The Danish Girl (and the public encounter that comes with it) count. The story of Lilly and Gerda is extraordinary, challenging and painful. So talk about it. Discuss with friends over dinner, colleagues at work, family members, in the classroom. And when you do this ask yourselves “What is the politic here?”, or to put it another way: “Who gets to say what about whom – to whom?”

In 2020, there is certainly more engagement with trans people when producing plays about trans people. But we are still a long way off from bridging the gap between the ways in which mainstream plays portray trans lives, with that of the amazing, rich, intelligent, nuanced, and often quite hilarious ways in which trans and queer people create art works that are by us and for us.

So, I’m still pondering: how can we utilise this debate of casting to progress the aim of getting trans talent nurtured and out there? What is a good way forward? I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

Gendered Intelligence is holding a roundtable ‘think tank’ space for trans people currently working in the industry. If you are keen to attend or can’t make it but want to contribute your thoughts email me: jay.stewart@genderedintelligence.co.uk.

GI’s take on the LGB alliance: they will not divide us

On Tuesday evening, reports emerged that a new ‘LGB Alliance’ was being set up to campaign for the rights of lesbian, gay and bi people. The group excludes trans people on the grounds that gender is a social construct and LGB people are same-sex attracted not same-gender attracted. One person on Twitter announced that ‘gender extremism’ had met its match in the new group. It is also vehemently opposed to Stonewall, accusing the charity of discriminating against LGB people by becoming trans-inclusive. 

This is not the first time that LG(B) people have distanced themselves from trans people. It is a worrying step backwards that highlights the normalisation of anti-trans sentiment in society. Although trans people such as Martha P Johnson and Sylvia Riviera were key figures of the early Pride movement, trans liberation has historically been sidelined in favour of LGB equality.

Two somewhat contradictory philosophies emerged in regards to people’s goals for the new Pride movement. On one hand there were those pursuing an assimilationist view of equality where all the rights of straight people, such as marriage, were available to all. On the other, there were those pursuing radical queer liberation that involved dismantling the societal structures that oppress both cis and trans queer people. Queer liberation questioned the role of the nuclear family, its tendency to reinforce gender roles and the institutions attached to it such as marriage. 

Unfortunately, those pursuing an assimilationist goal came to the conclusion that it would be easier for LGB people to achieve equality if they distanced themselves from trans people, rather than standing with us in solidarity, as we were seen as too much of a ‘hard sell’. It is during this time in the 80s that we first see a clear split between increasingly discrete concepts of ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender identity’ becoming mainstream and the gap between LGB and T widens even further.

This divergence in thought and the practice of excluding trans people go hand in hand. We see it in the first 25 years of LGBT charity Stonewall’s existence. Before the organisation became trans-inclusive in 2015, we saw great advancement for the rights and inclusion of LGB people, but trans people were left far behind.

Following the ‘Transgender Tipping Point’, there was an acknowledgement of the role trans women and trans women of colour in particular played during the early Pride movement. People were talking about trans issues and Stonewall was now campaigning for trans equality. It seemed the days of trans people being sidelined were behind us.

But in the last couple of years there has been a resurgence of transphobia that echoes the darker days of the 1980s. Every day there is a new article in the media using the same hateful, vitriolic language as was used about gay people to stir up the same fear in the public. Not only has this sea of disinformation had the effect of stalling proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, but hate crimes against trans people have skyrocketed. People feel increasingly emboldened to deny us our rights to be treated fairly and with respect under the Equality Act, going as far as barring us from bathrooms and swimming pools.

Now is not the time for LGB people to turn their backs on us. Distancing themselves from the trans community to assimilate and hide will not work. The rise of fascism in all its guises does not end with the attacks on trans people and we need only look across the Atlantic to the US Supreme Court to see how closely a pushback on trans rights is followed by a pushback on LGB ones.

Thankfully, we do have incredible allies who have stood up with us and for us. We’ve seen campaigns like #LwiththeT, #GwiththeT and #BwiththeT that show us that as a community for all LGBTQIA+ people, we are more united than ever. Solidarity is necessary and appreciated, but we also need our LGB allies to stand with us publicly, push for greater representation of trans people and call out transphobia when and where they see it. Together we will continue making space for people of all gender identities, gender expressions and sexualities until everyone is free to safely and freely live their lives without judgement or fear.

Please donate here to support our work supporting and standing up for young trans people. You can also support our ‘Trans Writes!’ campaign by using our webtool to contact your MP and tell them about the need for fit and working gender recognition laws.